A PHOTOGRAPHIC IMMERSION IN VARANASI
The images that I will show you represent a given moment in Varanasi. My wife and I could stay there only three days so I haven’t got neither the time nor the will to properly document it. Instead, I preferred loosing myself in the endless little streets and report photographically the overall atmosphere of this unique place.
But what is Varanasi? You may know this city as Benares, or Kashi. It’s one of the oldest town on Earth. For every Hindu, it is considered to be the home of Lord Shiva, the most worshipped god. Since birth, every Hindu knows that in order to reach the Nirvana, one has to die in Varanasi and to be cremated in the water of the sacred river Ganges. This is the most spiritual city in India, and probably in the world!
Even if we could stay three days only, as I said, and even if it was “not the season to visit because it’s the monsoon” as many people told us, we still wanted to experience it.
So it all started with a train trip from New Delhi…
Trains and railway stations in India are always very interesting for photographers. There are endless photographic opportunities, with many stories to tell in just a few clicks…
Above, I love how this kid grasps the grid and looks at me. I’m actually writing this article confined at home because of the Corona Virus… So when I look at this picture, I somehow recognize myself now, in his attitude, his look…
Below, I love how this man, dressed in a traditional way, contrasts so well with all the electronic components in the train. This scene looks so anachronistic !
When we arrived in Varanasi, we had to find our hostel “La Vie”. What we didn’t know was that taxis or tuk-tuk couldn’t go until the hostel because it was in a district full of very narrow streets. So we were dropped off as close as possible, but then we had to walk through this labyrinth of small alleys, asking each local if he knew its location. After half an hour, we finally found it !
We could already appreciate a diversified palette of vivid colors. So I was really excited to discover more and to capture beautiful compositions with that!
Once installed in our room, we decided to go outside for a walk. Since we had only three days there, we preferred not to read nor search any information about the city. Sometimes, we just like to get lost and get surprised. We intentionally didn’t plan our stay to follow our intuition and see where it would take us.
But of course, we knew that Varanasi is famous for its Ghats. These are riverfront steps leading to the bank of the Ganges, where people celebrate pujas, bath in the sacred river and incinerate dead bodies… So this is where we wanted to go first.
However, the first vision we’ve had was kind of strange… The very first thing we saw when we reached the river was this !
What was that? A floating object? No, it was not moving. The top of a building? Probably, but why? We were puzzled… Were we already at the Ghats? No idea.
We kept moving. We had to come back to the narrow streets because there was no path along the river. We stopped in a café for a lassi, we took our time, walked around…
But after a while, we decided to find the Ghats.
Another vision amazed us… We were absolutely speechless!
The Ghats were under the water!
But why? And how? It was the monsoon season, okay… But is the level of the water normally that high? I was personally shocked.
This vision of this building top, just rising above the water, and this lonely man, seated here and looking at the horizon… This scene seemed to come directly from an apocalyptic science fiction movie!
I was feeling disappointed, but at the same time, excited. Disappointed because we would not be able to see the Ghats along with their spiritual life. But excited because this was unprecedented from what I knew! I had never heard of the Ghats being completely flooded under 20 meters of water (even though I happened to know later that it occurred in our history).
I wanted to see more! I wanted to get an even more impressive vision than this. So I searched. I got lost many times in the streets because many of them do not lead to the river, but then, much later in the afternoon, when the sky started to literally burn, I found THE apocalyptic vision that I was looking for!
I could not believe what I was seeing. These heavy clouds, this crematorium, these chimneys, this temple, the extremely high level of the water, and this lonely man again, dressed of white…. There was really an end-of-the-world atmosphere on the banks of the Ganges this very day.
I was happy to be able to record that. This was something that I was definitely not expecting to witness before coming here. This was powerful! At this moment, I felt that I was living something very special and unique.
I also understood that I was at the burning ghats, and this was one of the crematorium where they incinerate dead bodies before the family returns the ashes to the river. In their beliefs, this ritual stops the reincarnations cycle, and allow the deceased to finally rest in peace.
So I was curious, and I wanted to know more. I wanted, if possible, to assist a ceremony. So I knew that, if I followed the smoke in the city, this would necessarily lead me to it…
Then I noticed people like this lady working next to the wood. I knew that I was getting closer and closer.
But the next scene particularly grabbed my attention. I saw this little boy, bare foot, and alone. He was standing here, in the middle of adults carrying wood to the crematorium. His face was just where the light was passing. I knelt down to be at his level, so to see at his perspective and I wondered… “If only you knew what part of the world you were born in… You have no idea yet about how special and unique this place is !”
Then I followed these men and arrived where I wanted to.
I was however surprised to see that this was happening just behind makeshift curtains.
Because the Ghats were inundated, the course of life in Varanasi had changed and the streets had actually turned into cremation grounds.
The deceased was wrapped in a white shroud and was about to be placed on the pyre. His son was here, in charge of lighting the fire.
This moment must be so relieving for the family, knowing that they believe that the Samsara, the cycle of reincarnations, will be finally broken…
I assisted the beginning of the ceremony, then I left. It makes no sense to watch a body burning during hours…
And I had seen and experienced enough for the day. Varanasi was definitely fulfilling its promises!
On the second day, I took an entire afternoon to walk in the thousands of colorful narrow streets, searching for interesting scenes to capture.
Varanasi is a place where life and death coexist. This day, I wanted to capture what makes this city so alive.
And nothing characterizes life better than all these vivid colors that Indians wear on them or paint on the city walls!
I was following this woman because of her Sari. I was just waiting for an interesting background which would contrast well with the orange color. And what I was expecting just arrived. I shot this image!
I like it for three main reasons. The first, and obvious one, is the contrasted colors. The second is how minimalistic it is. And the third one is how strange it looks… Didn’t you notice anything strange in it ?
Well, if you look closely, you’ll see that the size of the arm is not proportional with the woman’s body. And if you also paid attention to what I said, I was “following her”.
So… She is not coming towards me, as the composition suggests, but walking up the street. What does that mean? This arm is not hers. She was actually walking with her kid who is hidden in front of her. What we see is therefore the kid’s arm!
Then I found a perfect deep blue wall with many goats and a dog in front of it. That scene was already beautiful like this! But again, I waited to see if someone passing by could add something extra to the frame. And that happened as planned. The next image is also one of my favorite!
After this shot, I could not imagine that the best was yet to come. Not even 2 minutes later and while I was about to leave, another interesting subject came from the left side…. And I was like “Oh… I cannot miss that shot !”.
I was excited. I pressed the shutter. And I knew that I had taken something even better and more original !
I was really happy with what I shot !
Then I kept walking and wandering, talking to some locals sometimes who were always very nice to me… like this holy man below.
Or like these guys, who were not in jail, but working out in a gym!
I captured many kinds of situations… let’s say “The daily life in Varanasi streets” .
But what I particularly loved was the barbers, doing their job next to the Ganges!
Or these men doing absolutely… nothing!
I was loving Varanasi ! As a photographer, it’s an amazing playground…
So I felt like documenting a bit more the street life. I focused on the workers this time.
There were of course many “Tuk-Tuk” drivers, or whatever they call these tricycles…
People bringing construction bricks…
And sometimes, I managed to capture images that combine workers with amazing colors on the walls and on their shirts…
This image sums up well what I was trying to shoot the entire afternoon!
Finally, at night, I took few photos of people living roofless and sleeping in the street. This is a reality in this city, but like almost everywhere in the world…
It was also time for me to rest…
Last day already.
There was especially one thing that I wanted to share photographically but I had no idea how, because an image can hardly account for the noise and the smell of what it shows…
It was indeed very, very stinky in many streets!
I don’t know if it was because of the flood, but there were so much garbage and cows’ shit everywhere !
Cows by the way, are omnipresent in India, but I felt that there were even more in Varanasi. They are part of the decor and the everyday life. I think I took a quite nice picture of one here, seated in an interesting colorful environment…
But back on topic. It was indeed very stinky, and the only way I could express that photographically was by taking pictures of locals protecting themselves from that unbreathable smell.
Below, we were close to the Ganges and garbage was floating on the banks. There were besides these cows with many shits around… So you can easily imagine how unbearable the smell was!
But what surprised me the most was that people were still bathing here! Like this man who was just getting out of the water…
Cows, goats and dogs were not the only animals in the city… Like in many places in India, there were also lots of monkeys. For me, they always add a touch of exoticism. I just love their presence!
So… what I can say already, is that Varanasi is definitely a place where all living beings rub shoulders in an accepted cohabitation, without superiority of one over the other…
This is also a place where all the religions coexist.
Where tradition meets modernity.
Where social classes live together…
And where life and death merge each other…
Spirituality is, to me, the word that best characterizes this unique place, completely out of time!
It is everywhere, no matter the environment, the circumstances…
And pushes many people to live a completely ascetic life.
Here, Sadhus are totally supported by donations…
So… As a conclusion, and that regardless of faith, spirituality certainly brings them peace and serenity. It must allow them to accept and overcome the harsh realities of their daily life, of their existence…
It is, to me, the essence of Varanasi.
The essence of India.
I hope you enjoyed the article and the entire story. Every photo has been carefully chosen to tell as well as possible how I’ve experienced this journey… I try to improve my story-telling as I find photography the best tool for me to express my feelings on how I live these travels. I’d be curious and grateful to have some feedbacks from you if you took the time to read the full article!
I have a 500px account where I only showcase my landscape photography : https://500px.com/nicolas-castermans
Izabela has a Youtube Channel where she publishes Travel Vlogs about our trips : Iza Handerek
And my personal Facebook profile where I tell when I post a new article on this blog. So if you want to be sure not to miss the next ones, feel free to add me as your friend : Nicolas Castermans.